A classic Neapolitan dish with mysterious origins is finding new appreciation and lots of variations

Naples is famous the world over for its pizza. But among Neapolitans there is another dish that is held in equally high (if not higher) esteem. It is called La Genovese, and it is one of the most luscious sauces ever to grace a plate of pasta. It’s composed almost entirely of onions, enriched with a little beef and wine, and in spite of its name it has nothing to do with Genoa.

La Genovese is a traditional Sunday meal across Campania” says my friend Amelia Pane Schaffner, who grew up near Sorrento and was often treated to her mother’s version, simmered slowly on the stovetop for hours.

For me, however, this dish dwelt mainly in my dreams, and in a long-ago childhood memory. On a trip through Campania when I was about 11 years old, my family stopped to visit dear friends in Caserta, just north of Naples. We gathered around their small dining room table while our hostess, Signora Venditti, served a simple home-cooked pranzo of pasta, meat, and fruit. The pasta was a short cut—maybe ziti—and it was dressed in a rather undistinguished brown colored sauce, without a hint of tomato or basil, those two signature ingredients of Neapolitan cuisine. But all it took was one bite to reel me in. The sauce was creamy in texture and rich beyond rich in flavor, tasting of caramelized onions and pot roast, mostly savory but also sweet. I cleaned my plate, and I distinctly remember wanting seconds but not asking out of fear of appearing piggish. Plus there was the second course, the beef that had been braised in the onions and wine, served thinly sliced. It, too, was delicious, but it was the memory of the pasta and its beguiling condimento that stayed with me.

For years it remained a mystery, until I was given a copy of Arthur Schwartz’s wonderful cookbook “Naples at Table,” published in 1998 by Harper Collins. Within the book’s pages I found not one, but three recipes for la Genovese, which I recognized immediately as the sauce from my childhood memory. Schwartz’s book described it as “one of the glories of the Neapolitan kitchen, a dish proudly held up as proof that there was original, even fine cooking in Naples before the tomato.” Suddenly, after all these years, it made perfect sense why Signora Venditti would choose this particular dish to serve to visitors from the U.S. It truly is special.

The origin of la Genovese sauce is something of a mystery, as no such sauce exists in Genoa.

One popular theory holds that the recipe arrived in Naples in the 16th Century, with Genovese merchants and their private chefs. It may have evolved from brasato, classic Italian pot roast.

La Genovese sauce - © Domenica Marchetti

La Genovese sauce – © Domenica Marchetti

“The history is so vague that most people don’t even think about it,” says Schwartz, who splits his time between New York and Salerno. “At some point the onions took over—after all, who in the south could afford a big roast? So the onions became the star ingredient.”

It takes patience to make a good Genovese. First, there is the slicing of the onions. They should be paper-thin and, ideally, sliced by hand—traditionalists maintain that using a food processer bruises the onions and releases bitter juices. The onions are then cooked very slowly in their own juices, along with a bit of prosciutto or pancetta, a smattering of herbs, and a smallish piece of beef, usually an inexpensive, flavorful braising cut like chuck roast. This process takes hours, though it’s mostly hands off once you’ve got the onions chopped and the meat browned. Finally, towards the end of cooking, a judicious amount of white wine is added to the pot to enrich the flavor of the sauce.

As with all Italian dishes, each cook brings his or her own signature to la Genovese. In Campania, many cooks search out ramata di Montoro, a yellow onion with copper-colored skin, to make their Genovese.

Cipolla Ramata di Montoro - courtesy of Cooperativa Rama

Cipolla Ramata di Montoro – courtesy of Cooperativa Rama

Schwartz uses a good, basic yellow onion and steers clear of sweet, high-moisture onions such as Vidalia or Bermuda, which he says make an “insipid” sauce. Some years ago he experimented with using osso buco (veal shank) in place of chuck roast. This upends the dish’s frugal character, he admits, but he adds “it was so sensational that I now make my Genovese with veal shank.”

Amelia Pane Schaffner’s mother adds 3 to 5 small tomatoes to her Genovese. “You would never know they’re in there but this sauce is all about layers of flavor and the tomatoes add that extra layer,” Pane Schaffner says. As for the pasta, ziti is the most traditional choice, and if you can find them, “candele,” which are long ziti. The long, tubular noodles are hand-broken before cooking. Any splinters and shards from breaking are cooked along with the larger pieces. “These help to create a more starchy, creamy sauce,” she says.

In recent years la Genovese has seen a resurgence in popularity, not only among home cooks but also chefs, who are putting their own spin on the dish. “You never used to see la Genovese in restaurants,” Schwartz says. “It was strictly something you made at home. Now it’s trendy.” One restaurant, he said, uses the famed red onions of Tropea and red wine in its Genovese, while on the Amalfi coast, there are at least two restaurants that serve Genovese al tonno, with fresh tuna taking the place of the beef.

Suggested wine pairings for these dishes: Serpico Irpinia Aglianico DOC from Feudi di San Gregorio  for red wine Genovese, and Feudi di San Gregorio’s Cutizzi Greco di Tufo DOCG for the tuna variation.

I myself am partial to the classic recipe, the one I remember from my childhood. Over the years I’ve come up with my own version, using recipes from Schwartz’s book and a couple of old Neapolitan cookbooks, plus my memory as a guide. I have not seen Signora Venditti in many years, but I have a feeling she would approve.

Recipe for La Genovese

Makes 6 first-course servings with pasta and 6 second-course meat servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 lb (2 kg) yellow onions
  • 1 (2-lb/1 kg) boneless chuck roast, tied
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 rib celery, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 oz. (43 g) pancetta or guanciale, cut into 1-inch slices
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh marjoram
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 cup well-balanced white wine from Campania, such as Falanghina
  • 1 lb (1 kg) short, sturdy pasta, such as ziti, candele, or paccheri
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Method

  1. Peel the onions and cut them in half. Slice each half into paper-thin half-moons, transferring them to a large bowl as you go. Set aside.
  2. Season the chuck roast with a little salt and pepper. Warm the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Brown the roast for 4 to 5 minutes until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer the meat to a plate.
  3. Add the carrot, celery, pancetta, and herbs to the pot and sauté, stirring often, for 5 minutes, until the vegetables are shiny and the pancetta is lightly browned. Return the meat to the pot and add the onions, arranging them over the meat. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the onions have started to wilt and release their juices.Reduce the heat to low and let the meat and vegetables simmer gently, covered, for 40 minutes.
  4. Uncover, turn the meat, re-cover, and continue to cook at a very gentle simmer, until the meat is tender enough to pierce through the center with a fork—about 2 hours. Carefully remove the meat to a cutting board and cover with foil to keep warm. Continue to cook the onions on very low heat for at least 1 more hour, better yet 2,
    La Genovese sauce - © Domenica Marchetti

    La Genovese sauce – © Domenica Marchetti

    until they are a beautiful golden-brown and the pancetta has all but dissolved.

  5. Raise the heat to medium and stir in 1/4 cup of the wine into the onions. Continue to cook and stir for 3 to 5 minutes, until the wine has been absorbed. Add the rest of the wine in this way, 1/4 cup at a time, until you have added it all. Lower the heat once more and cook a few minutes longer to allow the flavors to merge. The sauce should be a rich golden brown, with a creamy texture. At this point you can pass it through a food mill if you prefer a completely smooth sauce, but if the onions are properly cooked you shouldn’t need to. (I like a little texture.)
  6. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Dress the noodles with the onion sauce, reserving a little of the sauce for the meat. Serve the pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano as a first course. Slice the meat and serve it as a second course, with a little onion sauce spooned on top.

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